Hibs’ hopes of a top-six finish took another jolt as Terry Butcher’s side were left battered and bruised by a rampant Dundee United seeking to stake their credentials as contenders for the Scottish Premiership’s runners-up spot.
The Easter Road outfit found themselves completely outplayed by the Tannadice club and lucky only to lose by two goals considering United twice passed up opportunities from the penalty spot.
Nadir Ciftci had already seen goalkeeper Ben Williams – who saved six times from 12 yards last season – easily stop his woeful effort following a dreadful decision from referee Euan Norris to penalise Paul Hanlon’s challenge on Ryan Dow before the Turk fired Jackie McNamara’s side into a deserved lead. But Jordon Forster hauled Hibs back on level terms just as Norris prepared to blow the half-time whistle, a lifeline which was shortlived as Gavin Gunning sent a bullet header beyond Williams before Gary Mackay-Steven, having taken over from Ciftci, blasted a second United spot-kick high over the bar.
However, any hope Hibs might have harboured of a second equaliser evaporated as substitute Farid El Alagui emphasised the vast gulf between the teams.
On a day on which Butcher had appealed for Hibs supporters to back the club’s 2014/2015 season ticket launch, it was a performance which will have done little to persuade fans, already unhappy at yet another bitterly disappointing season, to part with their hard-earned cash.
As such Butcher finds himself in a Catch 22 situation, unable to make the radical changes everyone knows need to be made over the summer without the fans’ backing while the supporters themselves want signs of progress before they’ll even think of investing.
Butcher made just one change to the side which drew at Rugby Park last week, club captain Liam Craig, pictured, who put Hibs into a two-goal lead at Tannadice earlier in the year only to see that advantage squandered in the final ten minutes, returning at the expense of Danny Handling.
Craig’s presence in the middle of the park released Sam Stanton to play in behind lone striker Danny Haynes, Butcher hoping the drive and energy of the youngster would pose problems for United’s midfield “sitters,” Paul Paton and John Rankin.
Hibs’ goal tally may be among the poorest in the Scottish Premiership but the vast bulk of those scored since Butcher took over in November have come from set-plays and Hibs’ reliance on such situations caused United some early consternation. Goalkeeper Radoslav Cierzniak threw himself at Alex Harris’ near-post corner, getting both fists to the ball but succeeding only in sending it crashing off Paul Hanlon, the rebound flying wide of the target.
The threadbare Easter Road pitch wasn’t entirely conducive to free-flowing football, players slipping while the ball was apt to take the occasionally deceptive bobble as United, seeking a fourth successive win, attempted to get into their stride.
And they caused Williams a moment’s worry as Ciftci’s free-kick from 30 yards took a wicked deflection off Forster which left the goalkeeper flat-footed but he, like Cierzniak a few minutes earlier, was grateful to see the ball spin wide for a fruitless corner.
There may have been little Williams could have done at that juncture but he kept Hibs on level terms in the 22nd minute when United were awarded a highly contentious penalty, Ryan Dow appearing to go down far too easily under the challenge of Hanlon as he bore into the home side’s box.
Referee Norris hesitated before appearing to take the advice of his assistant Stuart Macaulay and then pointing to the spot, the far side official then finding himself surrounded by furious Hibs players. It was a shocking decision, contact minimal and outside the area in any case. But a penalty in the eyes of those who mattered. Justice was done, though, as Ciftci’s effort was woeful giving Williams plenty of time to flop down to his left and clutch the ball as the home fans vented their fury at the officials.
It was just one of a string of decisions by Norris which irked those in green and white, Butcher summoned for a touchline reprimand as he made his feelings known.
United though had enjoyed much greater possession throughout the first half and, as the interval approached, they began to turn the screw.
Ryan McGivern, booked for confronting Macaulay, did come up with a superb block to deny Mackay-Steven; Williams had to produce a spectacular save from Ciftci’s header only for the Turk to then nudge Hanlon aside, cut inside Michael Nelson and fire the Tayside club a deserved lead.
But it was short-lived, Cierzniak flapping at another Harris’ corner deep into added-on time at the end of the first half, knocking the ball in the direction of Forster to steer a header into the unguarded net.
United would have headed up the tunnel wondering just how they found themselves on level terms but, again, it wasn’t for long, Jackie McNamara’s side taking the lead for a second time in the 56th minute as Gunning rose high above everyone to send a towering header off Mackay-Steven’s corner beyond the despairing hand of Williams.
The United winger had the chance three minutes later to kill Hibs off as Nelson was adjudged to have tripped Gunning, referee Norris pointing to the spot for a second time. Ciftci was relieved of the responsibility but Mackay-Steven ballooned his effort from 12 yards over the bar.
It was a lifeline for Hibs, one which they barely deserved, but their hopes of somehow finding a second equaliser faded again as Tom Taiwo was sent off 18 minutes from time. The little midfielder had been booked for a foul on Paul Paton three minutes after the interval and when he felled the United midfielder once more an early bath was inevitable.
And United made their numerical superiority match their play, substitute El Alagui’s finish simple but effective as he met Stuart Armstrong’s low cross at the near post to guide the ball beyond Williams yet again.
The game was now officially over as a contest although Sam Stanton’s curling free-kick which clipped the outside of Cierzniak’s left hand post almost provided a spark of hope for Hibs.
In truth, though, they’d been outplayed for much of the match, yet another bitter disappointment in an ever-growing list of failures at Easter Road – the ground Butcher was imploring fans to turn into a “fortress” earlier in the day when he launched the club’s 2014/2015 season ticket campaign.
On the evidence of these 90 minutes it’s going to be a hard sell, Hibs having won just two of their nine games of this year, their hopes of a top-six finish continuing to fade with virtually every passing match.